Teachers is very much in the mold of The Hospital, a film from about ten years ago. Both are irreverent, slightly surrealistic views of American institutions which are notoriously out of control, and both were directed by Arthur Hiller. Teachers certainly isn't up to the standards of the earlier film, but it's not too bad.
The plot is a series of semi-related vignettes about life in an extremely large big city high school, particularly from the point of view of the teachers in that school. As the school week starts, the usual chaos grips John F. Kennedy High. The school psychologist goes wacko, a kid bites one of the teachers, a mental patient with a tenuous grip on reality pretends to be a substitute teacher, and a lawyer shows up to take depositions for her client, a former student who is suing the school because he graduated without the ability to read. What's worst is that this doesn't seem to phase Judd Hirsch, playing the Vice Principal, who regards this as a fairly typical way to start the week.
Nick Nolte is Hirsch's best friend, a social studies teacher on the point of burnout. He has difficulties getting in on Monday mornings, and is sometimes more interested in teaching his students how to fix his classroom's faulty radiators than the approved syllabus, but clearly he is a good teacher, and the hero of the film. He's quickly set up with three problems. Will he lie about the school's treatment of the illiterate who's suing the school, or will he stand up for his principles? Will he fall in love with the beautiful attorney (JoBeth Williams), a former student who still has a crush on him? Will he be able to help a bright kid who's getting into trouble because of his parents' problems? If you can't guess the resolutions to these questions, you aren't seeing enough movies.
Teachers is one of those films which says Gee, aren't these problems terrible and hard to solve?, and then goes on to say, "Well, if we're all good and honest and upstanding and clap our hands to show that we believe in fairies, then the problems will be solved!" It doesn't even give simple solutions to difficult problems, it just says that good intentions are necessary, and we must all keep trying. OK, true enough, but hardly helpful in the greater sense. Teachers, like so many of Hollywood's social problem films, is much happier examining the problem than suggesting how to solve it. This wouldn't be anything to complain about if the filmmakers didn't try to convince us in the end that everything is going to work out, when actually they haven't done much of anything to solve the problems.
If one is willing to ignore Teachers simplistic social conscience, there's a fair amount of good stuff in the film. The script, while not really inventive in plot, does have some good scenes and ideas, and Hiller keeps it moving fast. If you don't like what's going on in Teachers, don't worry, they'll be on to something else soon. In addition to the aforementioned plot elements, we have a teacher who is impregnating female students (requiring a quick abortion subplot), a too-fast-to-live, too-young-to-die teenager subplot, a teacher who consistently gets dumped on by his students, stolen cars, cardiac arrests, and much more.
All of this frantically paced activity is well acted by a fine cast. In addition to Nolte, Hirsch, and Williams in the leading roles, there are Ralph Macchio as the problem student, Lee Grant as the ice-queen head of the school board (she'd better be careful or she'll wind up typecast), Allen Garfield as the pedagogical doormat, Richard Mulligan as the gentle looney given to livening up the history classes with costumes and historical recreations, Royal Dano as a martinet teacher, and Art Metrano as the randy gym instructor. Macchio and Mulligan are particularly effective. Nick Nolte, as usual, is excellent. Nolte seems to have a somewhat limited acting range, but he also has a superb ability for choosing suitable parts.
Teachers is an audience-pleasing film, and there's nothing wrong with that. It admits that there are problems with America's school system, and that's something. It has good intentions, it's competently made, and it doesn't espouse anything likely to be too offensive to much of anyone. Overall, not a landmark in American cinema, nor one of the year's best films, but a respectable effort by all involved.
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